The winter was dry, the spring will likely be dry – here’s why


Jonathan Pollock, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Andrew B. Watkins, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Winter still has a few days to run, but it’s highly likely to be one of Australia’s warmest and driest on record. While final numbers will be crunched once August ends, this winter will probably rank among the top ten warmest for daytime temperatures and the top ten driest for rainfall.

While it was drier than average across most of the country, it was especially dry across South Australia, New South Wales and southern Queensland. Small areas of South Australia and New South Wales are on track for their driest winter on record.




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In contrast, parts of southern Victoria, western Tasmania and central Queensland were wetter than usual.

Preliminary winter 2019 rainfall deciles.
Bureau of Meteorology

Thirsty ground

Soil moisture normally increases during winter (except in the tropics, where it’s the dry season), and while we saw that in parts of Victoria, for most of Queensland and New South Wales the soil moisture actually decreased.

Dry soils leading into winter have soaked up the rain that has fallen, resulting in limited runoff and inflows into the major water storages across the country.

A glass half empty

Sydney’s water storages dropping below 50% received considerable public attention, and unfortunately a number of other regional storages in New South Wales and the Murray Darling Basin are much lower than that.

The winter ‘filling’ season in the southern Murray Darling Basin has been drier than usual for the third year in a row, and storages in the northern Murray Darling basin are extremely low or empty with no meaningful inflows.

Some rain in the west

Some regions did receive enough rainfall to grow crops this cool season. However, northern New South Wales and southern Queensland didn’t see an improvement in their severe year-to-date rainfall deficiencies over winter.

In fact, the area of the country that is experiencing year-to-date rainfall in the lowest 5% of historical records expanded.

In better news, the severe year-to-date deficiencies across southwest Western Australia shrank during winter.

Indian Ocean Dipole the culprit

Sustained differences between sea surface temperatures in the tropical western and eastern Indian Ocean are known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). The IOD impacts Australian seasonal rainfall and temperature patterns, much like the more well known El Niño–Southern Oscillation.

Warm sea surface temperatures in the tropical western Indian Ocean and cool sea surface temperatures in the eastern Indian Ocean, along with changes in both cloud and wind patterns, have been consistent with a positive Indian Ocean Dipole since late May.

International climate models, some of which forecast the positive IOD as early as February, agree that it is likely to continue through spring.

Typically, this means below average rainfall and above average temperatures for much of central and southern Australia, which is consistent with the current rainfall and temperature outlook from the Bureau’s dynamical computer model. The positive IOD is likely to be the dominant climate driver for Australia during the next three months.

Comparison of international climate model forecasts of the IOD index for November 2019.
Models from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Canadian Meteorological Centre, European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, Meteo France, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (USA) and the Met Office (UK)

A dry end to 2019 likely

Chances are the remainder of 2019 will be drier than normal for most of Australia. The exceptions are western Tasmania, southern Victoria and western WA, where chances of a wetter or drier than average end to the year are roughly equal.

The spring 2019 outlook showing low chances of above average rainfall for most of the country.
Bureau of Meteorology

Warmer than average days are very likely (chances above 80%) for most of the country except the far south of the mainland, and Tasmania.

Nights too are likely to be warmer than average for most of the country. However, much of Victoria and Tasmania, and southern parts of South Australia and New South Wales have close to an even chance for warmer than average minimum temperatures.

Due to the warm and dry start to the year, the east coast of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, as well as parts of southern Western Australia, face above normal fire potential this coming bushfire season.

More outlooks more often

The term weather describes conditions over shorter periods, such as from minutes to days, while the term climate describes the more slowly varying aspects of the atmosphere.

From today, the Bureau of Meteorology is closing the forecast gap between weather and climate information with the release of weekly and fortnightly climate outlooks.

For the first time, rainfall and temperature outlooks for the weeks directly after the 7-day forecast are available. One- and two-week outlooks have been added to complement the existing 1-month and 3-month outlooks.




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The new outlook information for the weeks ahead also features how much above or below average temperatures are likely to be, and the likelihood of different rainfall totals.

The Bureau’s outlook videos explain the long-range forecast for the coming months.
Bureau of Meteorology


You can find climate outlooks and summaries on the Bureau of Meteorology website here.The Conversation

Jonathan Pollock, Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology and Andrew B. Watkins, Manager of Long-range Forecast Services, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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There’s a simple way to drought-proof a town – build more water storage



Inland towns need far more water storage.
Flickr/Mertie, CC BY-SA

Michael Roderick, Australian National University

The federal parliament has voted to funnel A$200 million to drought-stricken areas. What exactly this money will be spent on is still under consideration, but the majority will go to rural, inland communities.

But once there, what can the money usefully be spent on? Especially if there’s been a permanent decline in rainfall, as seen in Perth. How can we help inland communities?




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Let’s look at the small inland town of Guyra, NSW, which is close to running dry. Unlike our coastal cities, Guyra cannot simply build a billion-dollar desalination plant to supply its water. Towns like Guyra must look elsewhere for its solutions.

Running dry isn’t just about rainfall

“Running dry” means there is no water when the tap is turned on. It seems to make sense to blame the drought for Guyra’s lack of water. But the available water supply is not only determined by rainfall. It also depends on amount of water flowing into water storage (called streamflow), and the capacity and security of that storage.

While Perth has had a distinct downturn in its rainfall since the 1970s and has built desalination plants to respond to this challenge, no such downturn is evident at Guyra. Indeed, to date, the driest consecutive two years on record for Guyra were 100 years ago (1918 and 1919).

Long-term rainfall records for Perth (left) and Guyra (right). Dashed red line shows the trend and the full yellow line shows 600 mm annual rainfall.
Bureau of Meteorology

Despite the differences, there are some similarities between Perth and Guyra. As a rule of thumb, in Australia, significant streamflow into water storages does not occur until annual rainfall reaches around 600mm. This occurs as streamflow is generally supplied from “wet patches” when water can no longer soak into the soil. Thus, if annual rainfall is around 600mm or below, we generally anticipate very little streamflow.

While Guyra has seen some rain in 2019, it is not enough to prompt this crucial flow of water into the local water storage. The same is true for Perth, with annual rainfall in the past few decades now hovering close to the 600mm threshold.

Importantly, rainfall and streamflow do not have a linear relationship. Annual rainfall in Perth has declined by around 20%, but Perth’s streamflow has fallen by more than 90%.

With little streamflow filling its dams, Perth had little choice but to find other ways of increasing its water supply. They built desalination plants to make up the difference.

Let’s return to Guyra in NSW and the current drought. The rainfall records do not indicate there is a long-term downward trend in rainfall. But even without a rainfall trend, there are still dry years when there is little streamflow. Indeed, in Guyra, the rainfall record shows that, on average, the rainfall will be 600mm or less roughly one year out of every ten years.

Build more storage

So how do the residents of Guyra ensure a reliable water supply, given that they cannot build themselves a desalination plant?

Well, in this case, you can simply get water from somewhere else if it is available. A pipeline is currently under construction to supply Guyra from the nearby Malpas Dam, and is expected to be in operation very soon.

But that’s not always an option. A made-in-Guyra water solution means one thing: expanding storage capacity.

Guyra can generally store around 8 months of their normal water demand (although of course demand varies with the seasons, droughts, water restrictions and price per litre).

To give a point of comparison, Sydney can store up to five years of its normal water demand, and has a desalination plant besides. Despite these advantages, Sydney residents are now under stage one water restrictions which happens when its storages are only 50% full. Yet, even when Sydney’s glass is only half-full, that city still has at least another two years of water left to meet the expected water demand even without using desalination.

By comparison, when water storages in Guyra are 50% full, they have less than six months normal water supply.

It is astonishingly difficult to find accurate data on small-town water supplies but in my experience Guyra is not unique among rural towns. There is a big divide between the water security of those living in Australia’s big cities compared to smaller inland towns. Many rural communities simply do not have sufficient water storage to withstand multi-year droughts, and in some cases, cannot even withstand one year of drought.




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Nature, drought and climate change cannot be blamed for all of our water problems. In rural inland towns, inadequate planning and funding for household water can sometimes be the real culprit. Whether Australians live in rural communities or big cities, they should be treated fairly in terms of both the availability and the quality of the water they use.The Conversation

Michael Roderick, Professor, Research School of Earth Sciences and Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Drought and climate change are driving high water prices in the Murray-Darling Basin


Neal Hughes, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

Water prices in the southern Murray-Darling Basin have reached their highest levels since the worst of the Millennium drought more than a decade ago. These high water prices are causing much anxiety in the region, and have led the federal government to call on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to hold an inquiry into the water market.

Inevitably, whenever an important good becomes more expensive – be it housing, electricity or water – there is a rush to identify potential causes and culprits. In the past few years high water prices have been blamed on foreign investors, corporate speculators, state government water-sharing rules, new almond plantings and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.




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While some of these factors have had an effect on the market, they are in many ways a distraction from the simpler truth: that high water prices have mostly been caused by a lack of rain.

Supply drives the market

The waters of the northern basin run to the Darling River and the waters of the southern basin run to the Murray River.
MDBA

Market reforms in the 1980s and 1990s enabled water trading in many parts of Australia. By far the most active market exists in the southern Murray-Darling basin, which covers the Murray River and its tributaries in northern Victoria, southern New South Wales and eastern South Australia.

The market allows users – mostly irrigation farmers – to trade their water allocations (effectively shares of water in the rivers’ major dams). This trading helps ensure limited water supplies go to the farmers who value them the most, which can be crucial in times of drought.

Historical data shows the main driver of water market prices in the southern basin is change in water supply.

The following chart shows storage volumes (in orange) and water prices (in red) in the southern basin since 2006. Prices peaked at the height of the Millennium drought in 2007. During the floods of 2011, they fell near zero. Prices have increased again during the latest drought, and are now at their highest levels in a decade.


Water allocation prices and storage volumes in the southern Murray-Darling Basin.
State government trade registers, BOM, Ruralco Water, ABARES estimates.

Lower rainfall, higher temperatures

While water prices have always been higher in dry years and lower in wet, we’ve been getting a lot more dry years in recent decades.

Over the past 20 years, rainfall, run-off and stream flow in the southern basin has been far less than historical conditions.

The below chart shows modelled flow data for the Murray River, assuming historical weather conditions and no water extraction, over the past century. It shows that average water flows this century are about 40% below the average of the 20th century.


Modelled ‘without-development’ annual Murray River flow, 1900 to 2018.
Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

We know these reductions are at least partly related to climate change, driven by both reduced winter rainfall and higher temperatures.

Lower rainfall and higher temperatures also make crops thirstier, increasing demand for irrigation water. This was evident in January, when temperatures exceeded 35℃ for 14 days and irrigators’ demand for water spiked from about 4.5 gigalitres to 7 gigalitres a day.




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The basin plan in perspective

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan seeks to improve the environmental health of the river system by recovering water rights from irrigation farmers. To date, more than 1,700 gigalitres of water rights – about 20% of annual water supply – have been recovered in the southern basin.

By reducing supply, water recovery was always expected to increase water prices. However, the effects of water recovery on supply – while significant – are still small relative to the effects of climate over the same period, as shown in the below chart.


Water allocation use in the southern basin with and without water recovery.
State government agencies, Department of Agriculture, ABARES estimates.

Measuring the precise effect of water recovery on prices is difficult. Water buybacks are straightforward and have been modelled by ABARES and others. But the effects of infrastructure programs – where farmers return a portion of their water rights in exchange for funding to upgrade infrastructure – are harder to estimate.




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‘Carryover’ rule changes

Historically farmers had to use water allocations within a 12-month window. The introduction of “carryover” – most recently in Victoria in 2008 – means users can now hold their unused water in dams. This rule change was a good thing, as it encourages farmers to conserve water and build up a buffer against drought.

But it might also have contributed to anxiety about the water market’s operations.

Since water allocations can be bought and held for multiple years, information about future conditions can have a big effect on prices now. For example, we see large jumps in price following news of worse-than-expected supply forecasts. This may have helped fuel concern about “speculators”.

Over the longer-term, the ability to store water helps to “smooth” water prices, with slightly higher prices in most years offset by much lower prices in drought years. Again this is a good thing, but it may have added to the perception of higher prices in the market.

Water demand is rising

When a profitable new irrigation activity is willing to pay more for water – as is the case with almond farms in the southern basin – competition for limited supplies can potentially drive up prices.

ABARES’ research shows that between 2003 and 2016 there was little change in irrigation demand (aside from that linked to rainfall). Growth in demand from expanding activities such as almonds and cotton was offset by reductions in others including dairy, rice and wine grapes. However, there is evidence since 2016 that demand for water has started to increase, contributing to higher water prices. Longer-term projections suggest this trend may continue.

With drought and climate change reducing water supply, and demand for both environmental and irrigation water increasing, high water prices are only likely to become more common in the basin in future.The Conversation

Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Are more Aussie trees dying of drought? Scientists need your help spotting dead trees



File 20190326 36273 5tp4r3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
As climate change threatens Australian trees, it’s important to identify which are at risk.
Nicolás Boullosa/flickr, CC BY-SA

Belinda Medlyn, Western Sydney University; Brendan Choat, Western Sydney University, and Martin De Kauwe, UNSW

Most citizen science initiatives ask people to record living things, like frogs, wombats, or feral animals. But dead things can also be hugely informative for science. We have just launched a new citizen science project, The Dead Tree Detective, which aims to record where and when trees have died in Australia.

The current drought across southeastern Australia has been so severe that native trees have begun to perish, and we need people to send in photographs tracking what has died. These records will be valuable for scientists trying to understand and predict how native forests and woodlands are vulnerable to climate extremes.




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Understanding where trees are most at risk is becoming urgent because it’s increasingly clear that climate change is already underway. On average, temperatures across Australia have risen more than 1℃ since 1910, and winter rainfall in southern Australia has declined. Further increases in temperature, and increasing time spent in drought, are forecast.

How our native plants cope with these changes will affect (among other things) biodiversity, water supplies, fire risk, and carbon storage. Unfortunately, how climate change is likely to affect Australian vegetation is a complex problem, and one we don’t yet have a good handle on.

Phil Spark of Woolomin, NSW submitted this photo to The Dead Tree Detective project online.
Author provided

Climate niche

All plants have a preferred average climate where they grow best (their “climatic niche”). Many Australian tree species have small climatic niches.

It’s been estimated an increase of 2℃ would see 40% of eucalypt species stranded in climate conditions to which they are not adapted.

But what happens if species move out of their climatic niche? It’s possible there will be a gradual migration across the landscape as plants move to keep up with the climate.




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It’s also possible that plants will generally grow better, if carbon dioxide rises and frosts become less common (although this is a complicated and disputed claim.

Farmers have reported anecdotal evidence of tree deaths on social media.
Author provided

However, a third possibility is that increasing climate extremes will lead to mass tree deaths, with severe consequences.

There are examples of all three possibilities in the scientific literature, but reports of widespread tree death are becoming increasingly commonplace.

Many scientists, including ourselves, are now trying to identify the circumstances under which we may see trees die from climate stress. Quantifying these thresholds is going to be key for working out where vegetation may be headed.

The water transport system

Australian plants must deal with the most variable rainfall in the world. Only trees adapted to prolonged drought can survive. However, drought severity is forecast to increase, and rising heat extremes will exacerbate drought stress past their tolerance.

To explain why droughts overwhelm trees, we need to look at the water transport system that keeps them alive. Essentially, trees draw water from the soil through their roots and up to their leaves. Plants do not have a pump (like our hearts) to move water – instead, water is pulled up under tension using energy from sunlight. Our research illustrates how this transport system breaks down during droughts.

Lyn Lacey submitted these photos of dead trees at Ashford, NSW to The Dead Tree Detective.
Author provided

In hot weather, more moisture evaporates from trees’ leaves, putting more pressure on their water transport system. This evaporation can actually be useful, because it keeps the trees’ leaves cool during heatwaves. However if there is not enough water available, leaf temperatures can become lethally high, scorching the tree canopy.

We’ve also identified how drought tolerance varies among native tree species. Species growing in low-rainfall areas are better equipped to handle drought, showing they are finely tuned to their climate niche and suggesting many species will be vulnerable if climate change increases drought severity.

Based on all of these data, we hope to be able to predict where and when trees will be vulnerable to death from drought and heat stress. The problem lies in testing our predictions – and that’s where citizen science comes in. Satellite remote sensing can help us track overall greenness of ecosystems, but it can’t detect individual tree death. Observation on the ground is needed.

These images show a failure of the water transport system in Eucalyptus saligna. Left: well-watered plant. Right: severely droughted plant. On the right, air bubbles blocking the transport system can be seen.
Brendan Choat, Author provided

However, there is no system in place to record tree death from drought in Australia. For example, during the Millennium Drought, the most severe and extended drought for a century in southern Australia, there are almost no records of native tree death (other than along the rivers, where over-extraction of water was also an issue). Were there no deaths? Or were they simply not recorded?

The current drought gripping the southeast has not been as long as the Millennium Drought, but it does appear to be more intense, with some places receiving almost no rain for two years. We’ve also had a summer of repeated heatwaves, which will have intensified the stress.




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We’re hearing anecdotal reports of tree death in the news and on twitter. We’re aiming to capture these anecdotal reports, and back them up with information including photographs, locations, numbers and species of trees affected, on the Dead Tree Detective.

We encourage anyone who sees dead trees around them to hop online and contribute. The Detective also allows people to record tree deaths from other causes – and trees that have come back to life again (sometimes dead isn’t dead). It can be depressing to see trees die – but recording their deaths for science helps to ensure they won’t have died in vain.The Conversation

Belinda Medlyn, Professor, Western Sydney University; Brendan Choat, Associate Professor, Western Sydney University, and Martin De Kauwe, Senior Research Fellow, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

To predict droughts, don’t look at the skies. Look in the soil… from space


Siyuan Tian, Australian National University and Albert Van Dijk, Australian National University

Another summer, another drought. Sydney’s water storages are running on empty, and desalinisation plants are being dusted off. Elsewhere, shrunken rivers, lakes and dams are swollen with rotting fish. Governments, irrigators and environmentalists blame each other for the drought, or just blame it on nature.

To be sure, Australia is large enough to usually leave some part of our country waiting for rain. So what exactly is a drought, and how do we know when we are in it?

This question matters, because declaring drought has practical implications. For example, it may entitle those affected to government assistance or insurance pay-outs.

But it is also a surprisingly difficult question. Droughts are not like other natural hazards. They are not a single extreme weather event, but the persistent lack of a quite common event: rain. What’s more, it’s not the lack of rain per se that ultimately affects us. The desert is a dry place but it cannot always be called in drought.

Ultimately, what matters are the impacts of drought: the damage to crops, pastures and environment; the uncontrollable fires that can take hold in dried-up forests and grasslands; the lack of water in dams and rivers that stops them from functioning. Each of these impacts is affected by more than just the amount of rain over an arbitrary number of months, and that makes defining drought difficult.




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Scientists and governments alike have been looking for ways to measure drought in a way that relates more closely to its impacts. Any farmer or gardener can tell you that you don’t need much rain, but you do need it at the right time. This is where the soil becomes really important, because it is where plants get their water.

Too much rain at once, and most of it is lost to runoff or disappears deep into the soil. That does not mean it is lost. Runoff helps fill our rivers and waterways. Water sinking deep into the soil can still be available to some plants. While our lawn withers, trees carry on as if there is nothing wrong. That’s because their roots dig further, reaching soil moisture that is buried deep.

A good start in defining and measuring drought would be to know how much soil moisture the vegetation can still get out of the soil. That is a very hard thing to do, because each crop, grass and tree has a different root system and grows in a different soil type, and the distribution of moisture below the surface is not easy to predict. Many dryland and irrigation farmers use soil sensors to measure how well their crops are doing, but this does not tell us much about the rest of the landscape, about the flammability of forests, or the condition of pastures.

Not knowing how drought conditions will develop, graziers face a difficult choice: sell their livestock or buy in feed?
Shutterstock

Soils and satellites

As it turns out, you need to move further away to get closer to this problem – into space, to be precise. In our new research, published in Nature Communications, we show just how much satellite instruments can tell us about drought.

The satellite instruments have prosaic names such as SMOS and GRACE, but the way they measure water is mind-boggling. For example, the SMOS satellite unfurled a huge radio antenna in space to measure very specific radio waves emitted by the ground, and from it scientists can determine how much moisture is available in the topsoil.

Even more amazingly, GRACE (now replaced by GRACE Follow-On) was a pair of laser-guided satellites in a continuous high-speed chase around the Earth. By measuring the distance between each other with barely imaginable accuracy, they could measure miniscule changes in the Earth’s gravitational field caused by local increases or decreases in the amount of water below the surface.

By combining these data with a computer model that simulates the water cycle and plant growth, we created a detailed picture of the distribution of water below the surface.

It is a great example showing that space science is not just about galaxies and astronauts, but offers real insights and solutions by looking down at Earth. It also shows why having a strong Australian Space Agency is so important.




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Taking it a step further, we discovered that the satellite measurements even allowed us to predict how much longer the vegetation in a given region could continue growing before the soils run dry. In this way, we can predict drought impacts before they happen, sometimes more than four months in advance.

Map showing how many months ahead, on average, drought impacts can be predicted with good accuracy.
author provided

This offers us a new way to look at drought prediction. Traditionally, we have looked up at the sky to predict droughts, but the weather has a short memory. Thanks to the influence of ocean currents, the Bureau of Meteorology can sometimes give us better-than-evens odds for the months ahead (for example, the next three months are not looking promising), but these predictions are often very uncertain.

Our results show there is at least as much value in knowing how much water is left for plants to use as there is in guessing how much rain is on the way. By combining the two information sources we should be able to improve our predictions still further.

Many practical decisions hinge on an accurate assessment of drought risk. How many firefighters should be on call? Should I sow a crop in this paddock? Should we prepare for water restrictions? Should we budget for drought assistance? In future years, satellites keeping an eye on Earth will help us make these decisions with much more confidence.The Conversation

Siyuan Tian, Postdoctoral fellow, Australian National University and Albert Van Dijk, Professor, Water and Landscape Dynamics, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Darling River is simply not supposed to dry out, even in drought



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Puddles in the bed of the Darling River are a sign of an ecosystem in crisis.
Jeremy Buckingham/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Fran Sheldon, Griffith University

The deaths of a million of fish in the lower Darling River system over the past few weeks should come as no surprise. Quite apart from specific warnings given to the NSW government by their own specialists in 2013, scientists have been warning of devastation since the 1990s.

Put simply, ecological evidence shows the Barwon-Darling River is not meant to dry out to disconnected pools – even during drought conditions. Water diversions have disrupted the natural balance of wetlands that support massive ecosystems.

Unless we allow flows to resume, we’re in danger of seeing one of the worst environmental catastrophes in Australia.




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Dryland river

The Barwon-Darling River is a “dryland river”, which means it is naturally prone to periods of extensive low flow punctuated by periods of flooding.

However, the presence of certain iconic river animals within its channels tell us that a dry river bed is not normal for this system. The murray cod, dead versions of which have recently bought graziers to tears and politicians to retch, are the sentinels of permanent deep waterholes and river channels – you just don’t find them in rivers that dry out regularly.

Less conspicuous is the large river mussel, Alathyria jacksoni, an inhabitant of this system for thousands of years. Its shells are abundant in aboriginal middens along the banks. These invertebrates are unable to tolerate low flows and low oxygen, and while dead fish will float (for a while), shoals of river mussels are probably dead on the river bed.

This extensive drying event will cause regional extinction of a whole raft of riverine species and impact others, such as the rakali. We are witnessing an ecosystem in collapse.

Catastrophic drying

We can see the effects of permanent drying around the world. The most famous example is the drying of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. Once the world’s fourth largest inland lake, it was reduced to less than 10% of its original volume after years of water extraction for irrigation.

The visual results of this exploitation still shock: images of large fishing boats stranded in a sea of sand, abandoned fishing villages, and a vastly changed microclimate for the regions surrounding the now-dry seabed. Its draining has been described as “the world’s worst environmental disaster”.




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So, what does the Aral Sea and its major tributaries and the Darling River system with its tributary rivers have in common? Quite a lot, actually. They both have limited access to the outside world: the Aral Sea basin has no outflow to the sea, and while the Darling River system connects to the River Murray at times of high flow, most of its water is held within a vast network of wetlands and floodplain channels. Both are semi-arid. More worryingly, both have more the 50% of their average inflows extracted for irrigation.

There is one striking difference between them. The Aral Sea was a permanent inland lake and its disappearance was visually obvious. The wetlands and floodplains of the Barwon-Darling are mostly ephemeral, and the extent of their drying is therefore hard to visualise.




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An orphaned ship in former Aral Sea, near Aral, Kazakhstan.
Wikipedia

All the main tributaries of the Darling River have floodplain wetland complexes in their lower reaches (such as the Gwydir Wetlands, Macquarie Marshes and Narran Lakes). When the rivers flow they absorb the water from upstream, filling before releasing water downstream to the next wetland complex; the wetlands acting like a series of tipping buckets. Regular river flows are essential for these sponge-like wetlands.

So, how has this hydrological harmony of regular flows and fill-and-spill wetlands changed? And how does this relate to the massive fish kills we are seeing in the lower Darling system?




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While high flows will still make it through the Barwon-Darling, filling the floodplains and wetlands, and connecting to the River Murray, the low and medium flow events have disappeared. Instead, these are captured in the upper sections of the basin in artificial water storages and used in irrigation.

This has essentially dried the wetlands and floodplains at the ends of the tributaries. Any water not diverted for irrigation is now absorbed by the continually parched upstream wetlands, leaving the lower reaches vulnerable when drought hits.

By continually keeping the Barwon-Darling in a state of low (or no) flow, with its natural wetlands dry, we have reduced its ability to cope with extended drought.




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Why a wetland might not be wet


While droughts are a natural part of this system and its river animals have adapted, they can’t adjust to continual high water caused in some areas by water diversions – and they certainly can’t survive long-term drying.

The Basin Plan has come some way in restoring some flows to the Barwon-Darling, but unless we find a way to restore more of the low and medium flows to this system we are likely witnessing Australia’s worst environmental disaster.




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It will take decades, but the Murray Darling Basin Plan is delivering environmental improvements


The Conversation


Fran Sheldon, Professor, Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s 2018 in weather: drought, heat and fire


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Queensland’s ‘unprecedented’ bushfires were part of a year of extremes.
RACQ CQ/AAP

Karl Braganza, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Last year was a time of exceptional weather and record-breaking heat according to the Bureau of Meteorology’s annual climate statement, which was released last night.

The Bureau issued four Special Climate Statements relating to “extreme” and “abnormal” heat, and reported a number of broken climate records.

One of the headline stories for the year was drought across eastern Australia — centred on New South Wales, but also affecting Victoria, eastern South Australia and southern Queensland.


Bureau of Meteorology

With the whole of NSW declared in drought during the latter half of 2018, this drought will be recorded as one of the more significant in Australia’s history, ranking alongside the Millennium, 1960s, World War Two and Federation Droughts. Of those historic droughts, only the Millennium Drought saw similar, accompanying high temperatures.

The below-average rainfall has persisted for around two years across much of NSW and adjacent regions. The drought conditions were particularly severe in the recent spring period, with low rainfall, persistently high temperatures, and record high evaporation.

This exceptionally dry period was influenced by sea surface temperatures to the west of the continent. Perhaps fortuitously, a developing El Niño in the Pacific Ocean failed to mature in the second half of the year. An El Niño would have typically exerted a further drying influence on eastern Australia.




Read more:
Australia moves to El Niño alert and the drought is likely to continue


The dry conditions in eastern states were severe enough to see Australia record its lowest September rainfall on record, and the second-lowest on record for any month — behind April 1902, during the prolonged Federation Drought. Over 2018, Australia’s annual rainfall was 11% below average, and the lowest recorded since 2005, during the Millennium Drought.

In contrast, above-average rainfall was recorded across parts of the tropical north, and most significantly in the Kimberley, consistent with recent trends of increasing rainfall in that region.

The drought conditions were exacerbated by record or near-record temperatures across many parts of the country. It was Australia’s third warmest year on record, behind 2013 and 2005. Daytime maximum temperatures were the warmest on record for NSW and Victoria, and second-warmest for South Australia, the Northern Territory and Australia as a whole.


Bureau of Meteorology

Persistent dry conditions through winter are typically associated with low soil moisture and heatwaves in the following spring and summer, and 2018 followed this pattern — with the added contribution of a warming climate.

The year ended with some record-breaking heat events. Perhaps the most significant of these was the extreme heat along the central and northern Queensland coast in late November and early December, which saw maximum daytime temperatures of 42.6 °C in Cairns and 44.9 °C in Proserpine on the 26th of November.

These temperatures, combined with persistent dry conditions in the preceding months, saw catastrophic fire weather and bushfires along 600km of the Queensland coast, an event that fire agencies have called unprecedented for the state.




Read more:
Sydney storms could be making the Queensland fires worse


The year ended with a burst of heat over the Christmas-New Year period, with temperatures at least 10 degrees warmer than average across southern South Australia, most of Victoria and southern NSW, leading to Australia’s warmest December on record.


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Karl Braganza, Climate Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.